Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

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Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton


British Explorer

Sir Ernest Shackleton, British polar explorer and veteran of four Antarctic expeditions, is considered one of the greatest explorers of all time. During the early years of the twentieth century, a worldwide race was on to forge routes to the South Pole on the Antarctic continent. Extreme conditions, including treacherous seas, sub-zero temperatures, ice, and unmapped and unknown mountains and glaciers, met these expeditions on their quests for scientific and geographic information. Shackleton is respected and revered for his leadership qualities tested under conditions that were as severe as any human being had ever endured and for his scientific contributions.

Ernest Shackleton was born February 15, 1874, in Kildare, Ireland. He went to a Quaker school in Ireland until the agricultural depression in the late 1870s forced the family to move to London. At the age of 16, after attending Dulwich College, he joined the Mercantile Marine (Royal Naval Reserve) as an apprentice before signing on to the expeditions bound for Antarctica.

In 1902 Shackleton joined the British National Antarctic Expedition, sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society. Captained by Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), the expedition established a base camp on Ross Island in the Ross Sea. They set out with dog teams and sledges intending to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scurvy, frostbite, and a shortage of food and supplies forced them to turn back. Although the expedition contributed important geographic information, Shackleton and Scott parted on antagonistic terms.

In 1907 Shackleton and the British Antarctic Expedition set sail in the Nimrod for Ross Island. They intended to trek with ponies to the South Pole along the Great Beardmore Glacier. They came within 97 miles (156 km) of the Pole, turning back rather than risking the lives of the men. A Norwegian team headed by Roald Amundsen (1872-1928?) later became the first to reach the Pole (November 1911). Shackleton's old colleague Scott reached the Pole nearly a month later and perished on the return trip.

On hearing of Amundsen's success and Scott's tragic failure, Shackleton ignored the beginnings of World War I and launched the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17). In the ship Endurance, Shackleton and a 28-man crew set off to cross Antarctica and reach the South Pole. A sister expedition, captained by Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958) in the Aurora, sailed to the Ross Sea and cached supply depots at intervals to the Pole. The Endurance, meanwhile, sailed into the unexplored Weddell Sea on the opposite side, where the team was to travel to the Pole via dog team. Once at the Pole they would rely on the supplies cached by Mawson.

The plan was derailed when the Endurance became trapped in the Weddell ice pack. After abandoning the Endurance, the expedition eventually made it to desolate Elephant Island, where most of the men remained. Shackleton and five others sailed across 850 miles (1,368 km) of rough Antarctic seas in a small open boat to a remote whaling station on South Georgia Island in order to get help. After reaching land, they made a 10-day overland trip before reaching the station at Stormness. While waiting for Shackleton to return the men on Elephant Island endured bitter cold, six months of total darkness, dangerous ice conditions, and near starvation. Almost two years later, after three unsuccessful rescue attempts, the remainder of his crew were safely brought back to England from Elephant Island. Although the expedition did not complete its goal to reach the South Pole, a vast amount of scientific data was collected. In addition, parts of the expedition were filmed by cinematographer Frank Hurley, whose film captured the courage and resourcefulness of the Endurance crew. The transcontinental journey would not be achieved until 1957-58, when Sir Vivian Fuchs (1908- ) and Sir Edmund Hillary (1919- ) completed the crossing with the aid of motorized vehicles.

On January 5, 1922, Shackleton died on his fourth Antarctic expedition to the South Georgia Island. He was buried there.


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Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

The British explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922) is known for his ambitious examination of sections of Antarctica.

In the early 20th century, certain nations, especially Great Britain, Norway, and the United States, participated in attempts to reach the highest latitudes north and south. The motives for these expeditions were scientific attainment and national prestige. Sir Ernest Shackleton was to play an important role in the British expeditions to Antarctica.

Shackleton was born at Kilkee, County Kildare, Ireland, on Feb. 15, 1874. It has been noted that his "descent from north of England Quaker stock on his father's side and his Irish ancestry on his mother's may have accounted for the mingling of caution, perseverance, reckless courage, and strong idealism which were his leading characteristics." He joined the merchant service in 1890 and became a qualified master (1898) and a sublieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve (1901). Desirous of adventure and fame, he applied for a position in Robert F. Scott's Discovery expedition to the Antarctic in 1901. With Scott and one other, he sledged to 82°16'33"S latitude over the Ross Shelf Ice.

Returning home due to illness, in 1903, Shackleton undertook numerous engagements: secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (1904-1905) and employee of an engineering company in Glasgow. But his determined ambition lay in Antarctic conquest, and in 1907 he made his plans public. His principal object was to reach the South Pole; other aims were to explore the Ross Shelf Ice and King Edward VII Land and to reach the south magnetic pole. The expedition was largely financed by guarantees which would be redeemed by proceeds from lectures and publications following the voyage.

The Nimrod, a small whaler, reached the Ross Shelf Ice in January 1908. Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier, attained 88°23'S on the Antarctic Plateau on Jan. 9, 1909, and sent expeditions which reached the south magnetic pole and the summit of Mt. Erebus. On his return to England he became a popular hero, was knighted, and received numerous awards from geographical societies. The British government granted £20,000 toward the cost of the expedition. Shackleton made a lengthy lecturing tour and complied his account of the expedition, The Heart of the Antarctic (1909).

Shackleton now proposed to determine the extent of the Weddell Sea and adjacent lands and to complete a trans-Antarctic expedition. The Endurance and Aurora under government auspices sailed in 1914 for South Georgia. When the Endurance was crushed in the ice, Shackleton led heroic sledge and boat parties first to Elephant Island (reached April 15, 1916) and then to South Georgia (August 30), a total of some thousand miles. He completed the rescue operation in the Ross Sea, where the transpolar party was waiting, and returned home to write his account, South (1919).

Then followed numerous tasks, including a mission to South America on behalf of the British government to explain Allied war aims, and an expedition to northern Russia to organize winter equipment. But after World War I Shackleton returned to polar exploration and led an expedition financed by John Quiller Rowett to explore Enderby Land. Shackleton, however, died suddenly of angina pectoris on Jan. 5, 1922, and was buried on South Georgia Island.

Further Reading

Shackleton's accounts of his explorations are in his The Heart of the Antarctic (2 vols., 1909) and South (1919). Two biographies are Hugh Robert Mill, The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1923), and Margery and James Fisher, Shackleton (1957). Books dealing with his polar exploits include Frank Wild, Shackleton's Last Voyage (1923), and Frank Hurley, Shackleton's Argonauts (1948). Useful background information on Shackleton and his expeditions is given in L. P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960). See also Robert F. Scott, Voyage of the "Discovery" (2 vols., 1905), and Frank Arthur Worsley, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (1931). □

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Shackleton, Sir Ernest Henry (1874–1922). Almost the antithesis of Scott as an explorer, Shackleton was impetuous and restless and his experience was in the merchant marine rather than the Royal Navy when he successfully applied to join Scott's Antarctic expedition of 1901–4. Sledging with Scott himself, he reached 82 degrees south in 1902. After a variety of experiences including unsuccessful parliamentary candidature, Shackleton raised enough support to take his own expedition back to the Antarctic in 1907–8 where he discovered and named the Beardmore Glacier as a route onto the 10,000-foot plateau at the centre of the continent. Shackleton himself reached 88 degrees south, only 97 miles from the Pole. Now a hero, he was later encouraged to lead an official expedition aiming to explore from the Weddell Sea and cross the continent to the Ross Sea. Ordered to go ahead despite the Great War, Shackleton lost his ship Endurance when it was crushed by ice in November 1915. With sledges and small boats, he led his men to Elephant Island by the following April, sailed in an open boat to South Georgia, returned to rescue his men, and then visited the Ross Sea. After some diplomatic service in South America and military service in Russia in 1919, he set out on a third Antarctic expedition in 1921 but died suddenly after reaching South Georgia.

Roy C. Bridges

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Shackleton, Sir Ernest Henry (1874–1922) Irish Antarctic explorer. He led an expedition (1907–09) which got to within 155km (97mi) of the South Pole. On his second expedition (1914–16), his ship was crushed by ice and his men marooned on a small island. Shackleton's successful rescue mission, which he described in South (1919), is one of the epics of polar exploration.